Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Basics of Citing Your Sources

Not citing my sources was the single biggest mistake I made 21 years ago when I first started researching my family. I was so excited to find things I just wrote them down. Back in those days everything was on paper and I had to travel to find anything (no Ancestry.com!) In about 1995 I purchased Family Tree Maker (I think it was version 3?) and started converting all of my paper files over to the computer. When I went through and reviewed everything I suddenly realized I had no idea where I had gotten all of this information. It took me several years to re-research everything just so I could source it. The problem is, I didn't source things correctly. I would put things like, "1850 census" or "marriage license." This of course was better than what I had been doing but not near good enough.

In 1997, Elizabeth Shown Mills published the book, Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian. Her book was the catalyst for me becoming a more professional researcher. I now knew how I was supposed to cite things. Yes, you guessed it, I had to go back over everything and re-source it again. I will say that this process did have some advantages. As I reexamined everything I saw things that I hadn't seen before and a few brick walls tumbled. I also had everything much more organized so that I could find what I was looking for easily. I took formal genealogy classes through Brigham Young University in 2001 which further honed my skills.

Citing your sources properly is a big thing in the genealogy world. In 2007, Elizabeth Shown Mills updated and expanded her first book to include every possible source you might have to cite. Her 2nd book is Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. This book is considered the authoritative guide to sources. This book can be very intimidating to new researchers, however. It is 885 pages! (Her first book was 124 pages). If you use any of the top genealogy programs like Legacy Family Tree, Family TreeMaker or RootsMagic, their citation templates are based on "Evidence Explained" and all you have to do is fill in the blanks and you will get a good citation. Even though these programs make it easy for you, I still think it is a good idea to understand the basics of why we cite things the way we do.

There are some general principles of citation:

Every fact not common knowledge must have a citation
If you are doing a timeline and you mention that that Civil War began on 12 Apr 1861 you don't necessarily need to cite that because it is considered common knowledge and easily found in any encyclopedia. If you state that Mildred Ann Davis was born on 14 Feb 1845 in Columbia County, Georgia, married on 22 Jun 1855 in Columbia County, Georgia and died 02 Jan 1872 in Richmond County, Georgia you need to cite a source for every one of those facts.

Only cite sources that you have personally checked
This one trips people up. Let's say you are looking at a family tree posted on Ancestry.com and you find that John Brown married Jane Smith on 06 Jul 1894 in Lincolnton, Lincoln County, Georgia. The tree belongs to someone named Mary White and she cites her source for the marriage as Lincoln County Marriage Book A, page 42. Your source is Ms. White's Family Group Sheet or her GEDCOM file NOT the marriage license! If you want to cite the marriage license (and you should want to) then you need to get a copy of it yourself. Same with compiled genealogy books. If you read a book that someone did on the Brown family and that person cited a bunch of documents your source is the book, not the documents.

Your citation must have enough information so that anyone coming behind you could easily find the source
If I listed a source as "1850 census" how easy would it be for you to find the correct page? You don't know which state let alone which county. Here is how I cite the 1850 census:

1850 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 384 [stamped], dwelling 185, family 185, Silas Simmons household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 379.

Evidence Explained adds which repository (Ancestry.com) and the date it was accessed. I don't put this in the citation because you can find this census page at several repositories, your choice. I do it this way to make the citation shorter and easier to read but that is just me. You do have room to tweak as long you don't lose any essential information.

Your citations must be consistent
Once you decide how you plan to cite a marriage record then every marriage record needs to be cited the same way. Here are some marriage records:

  • Lamar County, Mississippi Circuit Court Marriage Book 11: 215, Walter Simmons-Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson, 1949.
  • Marion County, Mississippi Circuit Court, Marriage Book D: 30, A. G. Graham-Miss Mary Whidden, 1867.
  • Jasper County, Georgia Probate Court, Marriage Book 1821-1835: 58, Christopher C. Frith-Hannah McMichael, 1824.
  • Choctaw County, Alabama Circuit Court, Marriage Book 1: 115, Mathew Filmore Patton-Sarah Caroline McMichael, 1873.

Evidence explained only uses the bride and groom's last name. I prefer to put their name as written so that I can see how it was spelled and if the woman had a Miss or Mrs. designation. You can see that me changing it this way doesn't change your ability to find the record.

Every scholarly journal I know of, as well as the Board for the Certification of Genealogists (BCG) and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen), want you to use either Evidence Explained or The Chicago Manual of Style as your citation style guide. I will say that citing your sources is as much an art as it is a science so there is some room for tweaking by the individual author. As long as your tweaks still follow the general rules you should be okay. Evidence Explained has a great section about the fundamentals of citations in the front of the book. You need to write your own style guide so that you can keep up with whatever tweaks you make because you want to make sure you are consistent. I do have a style sheet in Microsoft Word that has examples of all of the different types of documents I commonly cite but I also have my Evidence Explained book with notes in the margins and little tabs on the pages so that I can find the citations I need quickly. I will also say that even though you have a built in citation generator in the genealogy database program that you use, you still need Evidence Explained so that you understand why you are doing what are doing and to make double sure that your auto generated citations are really up to par.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Great post! I wish I had started off citing my sources when I began my genealogy journey as well. :-)

  2. This is a greatpost. I did the same things and had to redo all of my citations and it taught me to do it right the first time. Now it's second nature.

  3. I think that most genealogists start out this way. The good news is that when you go back over everything you not only do it right but you find things that you missed on the first go round :)

    Thanks for your coment, Peggy :)

  4. Thanks for narrowing down the guidelines: either Evidence Explained or the Chicago Manual of Style. I'm an academic and familiar with the "common knowledge" exception to citations, sometimes hard to grasp. You give a great common-sense overview of the entire issue.

  5. It was a little hard for me to get used to this sort of citation. I come from a scientific background and everything is APA :)

  6. This is so filled with good info. I too didn't do the correct citations when I began so now will go over everything. Maybe I will find something new when relooking over the records. Thanks again for the good info.

  7. Thank you for your kind comments, Barbara :)